In this particular Hollywood era, one so dominated by monolithic tent poles and so fueled by familiarity as a box-office catalyst that even minor fringe hits attempt to convert themselves into franchises, the popular cinematic landscape threatens to consume itself. Even as the quality of some of these franchise films has reached a consistently solid level, the weekly release slate has become a monotonous churn of expected hits. Such an environment makes it easy to forget – and even easier to recognize – the magic of a film that very singularly expresses joy in its own unique form. Crazy Rich Asians is that joyous expression, a film as bright and glowing and swelling with romance as you’re likely to see all year.
Its mere wonderfulness – dazzling locales, breathtaking design, creative stylistic quirks, great performances – is enough to sustain a 120-minute smile, but that wonderfulness is galvanized by its groundbreaking significance. This is the first Hollywood studio film to showcase a nearly all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. That’s a 25-year gap in full Asian representation, one dotted with recurring episodes of studio white-washing of explicitly Asian characters, a trend that has actually increased in frequency in recent years. By simply existing – navigating the bottom-line treachery of studio development, getting made, and landing a release – Crazy Rich Asians is an ebullient, celebratory bursting of the representation bubble. The fact that the film is also fabulous just means that when the bubble bursts, confetti showers over the audience for two hours.
The film does not simply rely on its cultural freshness, however. In terms of presentation, it’s bursting with enough energy and creativity to spin an old yarn into something new. For all of current popular cinema’s sameness, Crazy Rich Asiansdoesn’t shy away from tradition. In fact, its basic plot combines the fish-out-of-water premise with the uptight unaccepting mother-in-law trope: native New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), daughter to a self-made single mother, who has herself worked to build a low-key life as an NYU Economics professor, goes to Singapore to meet the extended family of boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding), a family that happens to be among the wealthiest of the country’s storied Old Money empires.
Once there, she’s faced with the impossible task of making a good impression on a family sheltered by their money and a regressive, judgmental cultural tradition, chief among them Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). She is an impressive matriarch, formidable to the point that she’s nearly unapproachable, though her iciness is the result of the formal rigors of upholding her family’s elevated status for decades. One could argue, accurately, that there isn’t anything “new” about this premise, and in fact, if an all-white cast were swapped in, one might refer this story as “stale.” But, quite frankly, that would be because of the white people, not the story itself, which is proved timeless by virtue of the injection of setting, style, and cast representation. As a result, not a single beat of Crazy Rich Asians feels stale. Director John M. Chu’s gambit is to pull from both classical and current conventions and weave them into a new tapestry.
And what a tapestry it is, surveying the gorgeous environs of Singapore, from its tropical greenery to its stunning urban architecture, through the city streets replete with vendors offering delectable culinary delights to the lavish mansions tucked away in the deep forests. Chu, who cut his teeth on the dance-heavy films of the Step Up franchise, brings an innate sense of choreography to this story, wherein the clashing of regality and modernity welcomes such a stylistic cadence. Crazy Rich Asians is not a musical, though sometimes it operates on a similar elevated plane, with bright colors popping off the screen amid gleaming opulence, befitting the narrative clash of the old-fashioned and the contemporary. Similarly, Chu and cinematographer Vanja Cernjul frame and light the film with a formalism that harkens back to Golden Age romantic comedies, while the soundtrack is populated with Asian covers of well-known pop tracks, infusing the classically universal with unexpected freshness.
Of course, none of this works without tone and chemistry, and this film is a goldmine in that regard, its deep cast of new faces and veteran character actors – led by the irresistible Wu and the sterling Yeoh – relishing this rare opportunity to truly own the screen. It’s that excitement, both in front of and behind the camera, that sparks Crazy Rich Asians like a trailblazing firecracker…and monotony be damned, I hope it becomes a franchise.